Efficient Beneficence

This week on #MeetAScientist, Dr. Erica Frank shares her passion for advocacy and her 2001 invention of NextGenU.org — in essence, the world's first free university. In addition to serving as Pod Coordinator for 500WS Nanaimo in British Columbia, she is a Professor at the University of British Columbia.

When did you first identify as a scientist? Tell us about the research you’re doing now.

It’s an interesting dichotomy: I simultaneously have always been a scientist (as a rational and curious human experimenter and inventor), and yet that title is something that is rarely claimed by physicians, unless we're also PhDs. Even as a Canada Research Chair at a university, I do not put "scientist" at the top of my monikers.

Could you tell us about NextGenU.org? How did you get started and where do you see the project going?

I founded/invented NextGenU.org in 2001 (before MOOCs), and we're essentially the world's first (and still only) free university:  we’re globally accessible for credit, for free, unlike any other organization. Starting with a focus in the health sciences, our accredited courses span from college-level pre-health sciences and community health worker trainings through medical and public health graduate training, medical residency programs, and continuing medical education.

With the NextGenU team at the CUGH.org meeting in Washington, D.C.

With the NextGenU team at the CUGH.org meeting in Washington, D.C.

We now have over 5,000 registered users in 150 countries, and expect to achieve our ultimate outcome by July 2018: the world's first free degrees, an MD and a Master's in Public Health (along with Graduate Medical Education and a full Bachelor's level pre-health sciences certificate).

This educational system is not a set of Massive Open Online Courses — courses are competency-based, and include online knowledge transfer, a web-based global peer community of practice, skills-based mentorships, and a free certificate. Our accredited partners, North American universities that are outstanding in each particular course topic, give learners credit for this training (or institutions can adopt them and use them with their students), all for the first time ever cost-free, and also advertisement-free, barrier-free, and carbon-free.  

Founded in 2001, we globally launched our first full course in March 2012.  In Graduate Medical Education, our first residencies are launching in Preventive Medicine and in Pediatrics, developed with the American College of Preventive Medicine, Association of Prevention Teaching and Research, Institute of Lifestyle Medicine at Harvard, and Stanford Medicine.  

This free model has been tested in North American medical and public health students, and in community health workers and primary care physicians in Kenya, with as much knowledge gain and greater student satisfaction than with traditional courses, and the creation of a community of practice that has learned to interact globally and productively.  This creates the ready possibility of immediately, sustainably, and globally-permanently transforming health sciences education, and ongoingly supplying millions of physicians, public health professionals, and other health workers.

And finally, NextGenU.org has a sustainable business model.  We have a $16 million endowment (from the Annenberg Physician Training Program) that (nearly) covers our core expenses, and receive additional grants and contracts to create, test, and disseminate trainings from governments (e.g., $1.4 million from Grand Challenges Canada, US CDC), quasi-governmental organizations (e.g., NATO Science for Peace, WHO), universities, foundations, professional societies, individual benefactors, and our biggest donors, our volunteer course developers, advisory groups, and mentors, and the millions of experts who have generously shared their learning resources online, providing this unprecedented opportunity for globally democratized education.

Commuting occasionally from home on Vancouver Island.

Commuting occasionally from home on Vancouver Island.

You identify as a “compulsive volunteer.” How did you find your way into public health advocacy?

I have always been interested in efficient beneficence. The most rapid/effective way I could improve human and planetary health, while also improving public health research and communications (aka rational advocacy), seemed to me to be the most efficiently beneficent strategy.

How did you become involved in 500 Women Scientists? 

It seemed like a way to meet other rational, accomplished, big-picture-oriented women in my rural area of Canada. And to find more women scientists to work with on NextGenU.org (more are welcome, BTW – email me). It worked!

With all of the work that you’re doing, what do you do to decompress? What are your non-science related hobbies or passions?

Erica demonstrating how to work out while working.

Erica demonstrating how to work out while working.

I still work about 80 hours a week (at age 55 as a tenured Full Professor and endowed chair for a dozen years), but it's entirely on my own schedule -- a high locus of control is a big contributor to career satisfaction (particularly for women).  I also have figured out how to work and exercise simultaneously most days (highly recommend this life hack – see photo!). And I have a partner and a son whom I adore, who reciprocally cherish that I'm a kind nerd. 

Erica Frank is an educational innovator, physician, medical researcher, and public health and climate change advocate. Since 2006, she has been a Professor and Canada Research Chair in the School of Population and Public Health, and the Department of Family Practice at the University of British Columbia. Her medical specialty is Preventive Medicine.